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American Exceptionalism: What Are We Fighting For?


Roger Berkowitz recently gave the opening lecture at the Hannah Arendt Center Conference “The Unmaking of Americans: Are There Still American Ideas Worth Fighting For?” The conference, held at Bard College, included talks by David Bromwich, Anand Girdirhardas, Kennan Ferguson, Jerome Kohn, Ann Lauterbach, Lawrence Lessig, Charles Murray, George Packer, Robert Post, Joan Richardson, Amity Shlaes, Jim Sleeper and Kendall Thomas. You can view the conference in its entirety here. For the Weekend Read this week, we provide an edited transcript of Professor Berkowitz’s speech: “American Exceptionalism: What Are We Fighting For?”

I want to take a little time at the beginning to introduce you to the conference, explain a little about what I was thinking about when I came up with the topic, the question of whether America is an exceptional country and, if so, what that means. For those of us who care about the collective American project, the idea of building a common constitutional democracy, there is an imperative to ask: What is the American project? Is there still anything left of a common American idea? And if not, what, if anything, can we as a body of citizens imagine to be a common idea around which we can unite and for which we can fight? My talk today is an effort to provide some guidelines for what we’re going to do for the next couple of days.

Roger Berkowitz

Roger Berkowitz introducing the Hannah Arendt Center’s seventh annual fall conference on Thursday, October 9th, 2014.

About a year ago, one of those weird confluences happened in my life where a number of books I was reading coalesced around a particular topic. First, I picked up Lawrence Lessig’s Republic Lost. In the beginning of the book, Professor Lessig writes:

There is a feeling today among too many Americans that we might not make it. Not that the end is near, or that doom is around the corner, but that a distinctly American feeling of inevitability, of greatness—culturally, economically, politically—is gone…. That the thing that we were once most proud of—this, our republic—is the one thing that we have all learned to ignore. Government is an embarrassment. It has lost the capacity to make the most essential decisions. And slowly it begins to dawn upon us: a ship that can’t be steered is a ship that will sink.

That book came out in 2011. Shortly after that, I read Coming Apart, which was released in 2012. Charles Murray uses the introduction to explain his book’s significance:

This book is about an evolution in American society that has taken place since November 21, 1963, leading to the formation of classes that are different in kind and in their degree of separation from anything that the nation has ever known. I will argue that the divergence into these separate classes, if it continues, will end what has made America America.

Finally, I read a book that came out in 2013 by George Packer entitled The Unwinding:

The Unwinding is nothing new. There have been unwindings every generation or two: the fall to earth of the Founders’ heavenly Republic in a noisy marketplace of quarrelsome factions; the war that tore the United States apart and turned them from plural to singular; the crash that laid waste to the business of America, making way for a democracy of bureaucrats and everymen. Each decline brought renewal, each implosion released energy, out of each unwinding came a new cohesion.

Republic Lost

Lawrence Lessig’s Republic Lost (Source:

These three books all start with the assumption that there is something meaningful, something exceptional, about America, and that that quality is being lost. It is being unwound. It is coming apart. I thought that these three speakers—Lessig, Murray, and Packer—could make up the nucleus of what could be a spectacular and interesting conversation about what was once great about America, how and why it’s coming undone, unwound and apart, and what we can do about it. That’s why we’re here—to have that conversation.

Some people say that there is no American exceptionalism. They say it is a myth or a fiction that never was. The idea of America, in this telling, is a self-justificatory veil that hides the ugly truth of a country built around slavery, genocide, and imperialism. And this critique of American exceptionalism is both right and necessary. The idea that America is in some ways meaningful and important is not a claim that America lives up to its ideal, but that the ideal is, in the words of Seymour Martin Lipset, a double-edged sword, one that can be wielded both for justice and for justification.

For the purposes of this conference, allow me to give you a little background and take you through a telling of history that does make the case for a unique and exceptional America. We begin with John Winthrop, who came over on the Anabella with the Pilgrims and who was the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. In his famous sermon “A Model of Christian Charity” from 1630, he uttered these lines:

For wee must consider that wee shall be as a citty upon a hill. The eies of all people are upon us. Soe that if wee shall deale falsely with our God in this worke wee haue undertaken, and soe cause him to withdrawe his present help from us, wee shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.

John Winthrop

John Winthrop (Source: PBS)

Winthrop’s argument is that America was this new beginning in the eyes of God that could serve as an example for the world. And this idea lasted. The speech’s text was first printed in 1838—a fair bit later after Winthrop first delivered it—and it acted as the foundation for John F. Kennedy’s “A City Upon a Hill” speech in 1961.

Echoing Winthrop’s claim of America’s exceptionalism, Thomas Paine in his book Common Sense in 1776 writes:

We have every opportunity and every encouragement before us, to form the noblest purest constitution on the face of the earth. We have it in our power to begin the world over again. A situation, similar to the present, hath not happened since the days of Noah until now. The birthday of a new world is at hand, and a race of men, perhaps as numerous as all Europe contains, are to receive their portion of freedom from the event of a few months.

Here we have a secular individual—Thomas Paine was a raging atheist—who more or less translates Winthrop’s religious idea about America’s special place in the world. And around the same time, Philip Freneau, who is now known as the poet of the American Revolution, takes Paine’s secular paean to American exceptionalism and turns it into verse:

So Shall our Nation, formed on Virtue’s Plan,
Remain the guardian of the Rights of Man,
A vast republic, famed through every clime,
Without a kind, to see the end of time.

Then a half century later, as some of you may know, Alexis de Tocqueville of France comes to America and in 1935 later publishes volume one of Democracy in America. Tocqueville traveled to the United States in 1831 posing the problem of how freedom and free institutions could survive in democracy. He worried that the tyranny of a democratic majority and also the degradation of souls in a world of equality and thus shorn of distinction and greatness would spell the end of freedom. While Tocqueville found much in America that worried him, he also saw that American democracy, in distinction to rising democracies elsewhere, had developed institutions and ideals that at least to some degree protected against the loss of freedom that elsewhere accompanied the rise of democracy. In his book, he famously writes:

The situation of the Americans is therefore entirely exceptional, and it is to be believed that no [other] democratic people will ever be placed in it.

Democracy in America

Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (Source: Networking Futures)

Toqueville pointed to America’s puritanical origin, thus American’s love of religious liberty and independence, entropic qualities that are mitigated by the centripetal forces of religious communalism that draws unique individuals around a central and common virtue. Above all, Tocqueville saw what he called the “dogma of self-government” as practiced in the New England Town Hall meetings to be the animating a spirit of freedom in America that could, if cultivated, inoculate American democracy against the twin tyrannies of mass opinion and mass democracy.

Ultimately, America’s uniqueness is perhaps most famously defended by President Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln mobilized the idea of American equality partly to argue against slavery, but he more explicitly used the idea of American self-government to argue for the importance of the American idea and thus of the Union itself. It is from this idea of America’s importance as a model of democracy that the Gettysburg Address took its rhetorical power:

It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Time and again, throughout American history, this dream of American exceptionalism has been mobilized by those in power to justify America and it’s actions. But it was also used by many out-of-power in America to call the nation back to its highest and best ideals.

In 1935, Langston Hughes writes a poem, “Let America be America Again.” One of the key verses is:

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.
(America never was America to me.)

A few decades later, that dream about which Hughes writes became the foundation of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech:

Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends.

And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all mean are created equal.”

racial justice

A scene from America’s struggles for racial justice (Source: Anderson@Large)

For Hughes and King, the idea of America found in the Declaration of Independence and also in the Constitution—in spite of its compromise on slavery—remains a powerful force for the pursuit of racial justice. Indeed, throughout American history, voices from excluded groups including native Americans, black slaves, African Americans, women, and immigrants have found in the American idea both a dream and a sword.

These various examples of the idea of America together illustrate the constancy of this idea that America is called to justice, called to equality, called to individualism, and called to freedom because of its unique place in the world, something we might want to call American exceptionalism. American exceptionalism can be used to mean “better than,” but it doesn’t need to be. We can also use it as an appeal to American difference or uniqueness.

But how does Hannah Arendt fit in? Why is it that we are asking the question of American exceptionalism at a conference sponsored by the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College?

On Revolution

Hannah Arendt’s On Revolution (Source: GoodReads)

In 1963, the same year that Martin Luther King gave his “I Have A Dream” speech, Arendt published her book On Revolution. On Revolution is a book about America, about the way the American Revolution and also the American system of government are unique and important in the world. In other words, Arendt’s book is expression of her view of American exceptionalism.

It’s important to remember that Arendt had escaped from Nazi Germany and had then come to America, where she fell in love with the country. She was a deeply American thinker in her life and worldview. That doesn’t mean she wasn’t critical of it. In fact, she was highly critical of it. But she embraced it. She wrote On Revolution in an effort to discuss this uniqueness of the American Revolution in the history of revolutions and the uniqueness of the American constitutional democratic system that she so loved.

She begins by saying that there’s a difference between rebellion and revolution. The end of rebellion is liberation. In that sense, if you overthrow a dictator, that’s a rebellion by which you liberate yourself. By contrast, the end of a revolution represents the foundation of freedom, and that’s much harder to realize.

Ultimately, the core to what makes America unique to Hannah Arendt is our constitutional tradition, and so she writes:

For in America the armed uprising of the colonies and the Declaration of Independence had been followed by a spontaneous outbreak of constitution-making in all thirteen colonies—as though, in John Adams’ words, “thirteen clocks had struck as one”—so that there existed no gap, no hiatus, hardly a breathing spell between the war of liberation, which was the condition for freedom, and the constitution of the new states. (Hannah Arendt, On Revolution, 141)

Her argument here is that as soon as the Revolution happened, all thirteen colonies immediately remade their constitutions. They didn’t start with just legislatures. They didn’t begin passing laws. They asked, “Who are we? What do we believe our politics are about? How do we give ourselves the power to rule?” It was this practice that started with the Mayflower Compact, where in their new home, the first American colonists said, “We’re going to give ourselves a government.” And it is this tradition of Americans feeling they have a right to give themselves government, to constitute themselves, that is at the very core of what makes America unique and special.

Rights of Man

Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man (Source: Otago University Research Heritage)

In her book, Arendt quotes Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man, which offers a definition of a constitution that is very different from our understanding of the term today. Nowadays we conceive of a constitution as a limit. It says what you can’t do, what the government can’t do. But Thomas Paine had a different understanding of the word. In fact, he said that “constitution” is a verb: As Arendt cites Paine, he writes, “A constitution is not an act of a government but of a people constituting a government.”

In Paine’s mind, a constitution is an act of making. It’s an act of constituting ourselves. And Arendt takes this incredibly serious. She believes that this, our Constitution, is what’s at the center of the American experience of freedom. She even goes so far as to suggest that it forms what she called “a new system of power,” a whole new idea of power:

The Aim of state constitutions [after the revolution] was “to create new centres of power after the Declaration of Independence had abolished the authority and power of crown and Parliament.” (149)

local town meeting

“Local Town Meeting” by Norman Rockwell (Source: Washington City Paper)

We think of power as something bad that needs to be eliminated. We say: “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” There is a truth in that cliché. But as demonstrated in the quote above, Arendt also thought of power as something good. Power is what people do when they act together for a common end or civic purpose. She understood that while power may corrupt, governance depends on power. And she argues that the American founders appreciated this viewpoint; the Americans used their new experience of freedom following their Revolution to create lots of new centers of power. Constitutions in all thirteen states were institutions of power; town councils and town governments were institutions of power; the legislatures in counties and states were institutions of power; governors were institutions of power; the three branches of the federal government were institutions of power; even the many civic and political associations Americans formed were institutions of power. Her point is that local power centers sprung up all over America, and the American Constitution gave these multiple power sources a formal institutional home.

The institutionalization of multiple sources of power in America was, for Arendt, deeply important to the American experience of freedom. This is because, as she writes, “Power, contrary to what we are inclined to think, cannot be checked, at least reliably, by laws.” That is one of the most important insights Arendt offers us, and it’s one that we simply don’t understand today. We think that laws and the Constitution can check power, but it doesn’t work that way. If people in a democracy really want to do something, in the end they will just do it.

Please do not misunderstand me. Laws and constitutions are important. I’m not saying they’re not. But in the end, there’s more to democracy. John Adams and the American revolutionaries similarly believed this was so. John Adams wrote: “Power must be opposed to power, force to force, strength to strength.” Power was and is a force of its own reckoning. It cannot be checked by laws alone or by pieces of paper. So what the Americans did is that they created this new idea of power, which was to act together in concert and thereby exercise their freedom.

Declaration of Independence

John Thumbull’s “Declaration of Independence: July 4, 1776” (Source: Independence Hall Association)

After the American Revolution, the Articles of Confederation were considered too weak. But the Founders did not simply substitute a Federal government for the unruly governance of the many states. They were convinced that they didn’t need a model that affirmed that the states were bad, that the federal government was good, and that ultimately we needed to surrender states’ power to make the federal government stronger. We needed to make the federal government strong as a balance to the states:

Not the states ought to surrender their powers to the national government, rather the powers of the central government should be greatly enlarged….[R]ather the powers of the central government should be greatly enlarged….Clearly the true objective of the American Constitution was not to limit power but to create more power. (153-4)


Signing of the Mayflower Compact (Source: Education Portal)

This willingness to multiply powers and institutionalize a true contest of power is what has made America different from France and almost all other modern governments that seek to centralize power. According to Arendt, “The American revolution brought the new American idea of power and the American Experience of Power out into the open.”

Arendt quoted Alexis de Tocqueville who famously wrote: “The American Revolution broke out, and the doctrine of the sovereignty of the people came out of the townships and took possession of the state.” Her point is that it was this American experience of self-government in the townships, on the Anabella, on the ships—this feeling of the right to make our own government—that created a unique idea of American power, one which not only could protect freedom but also makes freedom what it is: self-government. And so she concludes:

The great and, in the long run, perhaps the greatest American innovation in politics as such was the consistent abolition of sovereignty within the body politics of the republic, the insight that in the realm of human affairs sovereignty and tyranny are the same.

What made America unique for her was that there was no one sovereign, there was no one place where sovereignty was held. There were many power sources. The focus wasn’t even the people or the nation because there were many peoples and many nations, and each one could have power.

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson (Source:

All of this seems like a pretty happy story. But as most of you who have read Arendt know, she rarely tells a story that ends so happily. On Revolution is no different. Arendt called the last chapter of her book “The Lost Treasure.” In it, she talks about how Thomas Jefferson was the American Founder who most understood the failure of the American Constitution. In his telling, the Constitution had failed to provide a space where everyday Americans could exercise and practice their freedom. “Jefferson knew, however dimly, that the Revolution, while it had given freedom to the people, had failed to provide a space where this freedom could be exercised.” We had legislators in the federal government, and we had legislatures at the state level and the county level. And we had mayors. But we didn’t have places where people could come together and experience the freedom of acting together in self-government.

At one time, Jefferson had put forth a proposal for wards. He suggested breaking counties into wards and having each ward act in self-government. On the model of town council government, the wards would offer a space for all Americans to engage in the act of free self-government.

The failure of the Constitution to include that local level of for Jefferson led in Arendt’s telling to the loss of the treasure, the loss of the multiplication of powers. For what eventually happened? They let the governors begin to govern. And as the governors began governing, the people began to say, “It’s not my responsibility. All we have to do is vote every couple of years.” The people became corrupted. And so Arendt says:

What could happen, and what indeed has happened over and over again since, was that “the representative organs should become corrupt and perverted,” but such corruption was not likely to be due (and hardly ever has been due) to a conspiracy of the representative organs against the people whom they represented. Corruption in this kind of government is much more likely to spring from the midst of society, that is, from the people themselves.

The people became convinced that the government is just there to serve them. They now buy the government, or they expect services from the government. But they have stopped governing themselves. And that was the ultimate corruption.

Small Town in Mass Society

Small Town in Mass Society (Source: University of Illinois Press)

I want to provide one quick example of what I mean by this. And this is from a book that very few of you probably know. It came out in 1958. It’s called Small Town in Mass Society, by Arthur J. Vidich and Joseph Bensman. The book is a study of a small town called Candor (interestingly named), which is near Ithaca, NY. It studies the small town people in the 1950s and finds that these people all think of themselves as superior to urban dwellers. They are the proverbial “root” of America. They’re independent. They’re not big. They have their own little ways. They’re “good folk,” they say. And they can also govern themselves in a small-town, good-American fashion.

But as the writers study the people, the town, and the politics, what they find over and over again is that every time the town wants to solve a problem, they either outsource it to the county or state or follow the regulations set forth by the state or federal government. As a result, “Solutions to the problem of fire protection are found in agreements with regionally organized fire districts.” Over and over again, “The town prefers to have its road signs provided in standard form by state agencies ‘without cost to the taxpayer[s].’” For Vidich and Bensman, “Springdale [which is the fake name for Candor, NY] accepts the state’s rules and regulations on roads built and maintained by the state. It works with the foreman of the state highway maintenance crew to have his teams clear village roads, thus saving the expense of organizing and paying for this as a town.” And “State construction programs ‘present local political agencies with the alternative of either accepting or rejecting proposed road plans and programs formulated by the state highway department.’”

Vidich and Bensman conclude that far from their self-image of small town independence, the people of Springdale are highly dependent. Indeed, there is a pattern of dependence:

There is a “pattern of dependence,” according to which the “important decisions are made for Springdale by outside agencies.” [e.g. State police, the Department of Education, state welfare agencies, state highway department, the state conservation department] Though such agencies and their representatives are frequently resented by the community, their services are accepted and sought because they are free or because acceptance of them carries with it monetary grants-in-aid for the local community… they accede to the rule of these outside agencies because the agencies have the power to withhold subsidies.

If you have read Lawrence Lessig’s book Republic Lost, you’ll know he defines corruption as dependence. And dependence is clearly evident in “Springdale.” Indeed, Vidich and Bensman conclude that the people of Springdale are bought. They sell their self-government. They sell their right to freedom to subsidies and, in kind, to payment, as observed by the writers in the book’s conclusion: “Psychologically this dependence leads to an habituation to outside control to the point where the town and village governments find it hard to act even where they have the power.” In other words, in American towns as well as in American cities, we have given up our power, our right to self-government, and we have done so over and over again.

Arthur Vidich and Joseph Bensman

Arthur Vidich and Joseph Bensman, authors of Small Town in Mass Society share a lighter moment (Source:

But self-government isn’t the only thing we’ve lost. Senator Paul Douglas, who was a leading senator for many years in the United States, had this to say: (This is quoted from Lessig’s Republic Lost.)

Today the corruption of public officials by private interests takes a more subtle form. The enticer does not generally pay money directly to the public representative. He tries instead by a series of favors to put the public official under such a feeling of personal obligation that the latter gradually loses his sense of mission to the public and comes to feel that his first loyalties are to his private benefactors and patrons. What happens is a gradual shifting of a man’s loyalties from the community to those who have been doing him favors.

This is how the private, the people, corrupt the political. We lose not just self-government and local governments. We also lose an idea of national government. For what does national government now do? It does what local government was supposed to do. It gives out favors. It helps people with welfare. It helps people with quotidian things. Meanwhile, the original role of the national government was to act as the sense of what holds different peoples together.

The Statue of Liberty's "Torch of Enlightenment"

The Statue of Liberty’s “Torch of Enlightenment” (Source:

We know from Robert Pranger that there are two ideas of liberty. One is self-fulfillment, but another is toleration of living together in a world where we don’t always agree with people but where we see ourselves united by a common purpose. And as the federal government starts to look more and more like a bank or a micro-regulator, it loses its ability to articulate a more general idea of what the country stands for.

So what happens? Rational voters eventually decide not to vote, especially in local elections. In 2013, an off-year election, the New York City mayoral election—not an unimportant post, some would say—drove 24% of the vote. That’s pretty good actually, because in Los Angeles it was 16%. And in Durham, North Carolina, 10.49%. Finally, in the 2013 Texas municipal elections, 8.1%.

You can say, as many people do, that we need voter education programs. But those won’t help. People are not voting because they know that voting doesn’t matter. And it’s not because both parties are the same, although that may be the case. It’s because municipalities and localities have over and over again given up their power to higher and higher entities such that they are largely housekeeping organizations. Now that’s not entirely true. The NYC mayor does actually have some power. But why do only 24% vote? Clearly, they sense, with great justification, that the power of the Mayor is just not so great.

Over these next two days at our conference on “The Unmaking of Americans: Are There Still American Ideas Worth Fighting For?”, I urge you to reflect on these many manifestations of corruption:

  • The corruption of the small town, one that thinks of itself as a place of self-governance, of local habits, of local customs but which is increasingly insinuated within mass society in a way that it has given up its power to govern itself.
  • The corruption of politicians, who become dependent on enormous amounts of cash and thus take their eyes away from the common good and towards the good of those who can provide them with the money they need to run in elections.
  • The corruption of government, which increasingly cares more about keeping itself in business than about solving problems. Every four years, every president runs on the notion of reforming government. It never happens. Jonathan Rauch in a great book called Government’s End: Why Washington Stopped Working makes this point: government is a bipartisan effort that wants to keep itself in business. It doesn’t actually want to change.
  • The corruption of the new elite. The new elite that becomes a hollow elite, one that doesn’t make judgments and that isolates itself in bubbles of privilege, thereby abandoning its public-oriented, public-spirited role.
  • The corruption of the new poor, as Charles Murray has written about in his new book. They have also been confined into small bubbles and have given up what Charles Murray describes as “American virtues.” He’ll be talking about that soon.
  • The corruption of institutions—a real theme of George Packer’s book—which is essentially about the idea that institutions don’t work and we don’t hold them accountable for it because we almost expect them not to work.
  • The corruption of education. I encourage everyone to read Bill Deresiewicz’s book The Excellent Sheep, which is a book about how we corrupt people who are going to college. We teach them to be excellent, to be top students, to be super smart, but we don’t teach them values. We don’t teach them a “soul,” in Deresiewicz’s words.
  • And of course the corruption of our moral imagination, a term that David Bromwich, who will be speaking tomorrow morning, has written about. Today when we are speaking about American exceptionalism, we are often not talking about our highest values, our moral imagination, but justifying imperialism or justifying actions that are certainly not what many of the people whom I have put up on the screen today would say makes America great.

We have this issue of corruption. Does that mean we are about to have two days of pessimism? I hope not. Speaking at our final panel will be Professor Zephyr Teachout. In her new book, Corruption in America, Teachout writes:

conference_14The word “corruption” is itself a bulwark against temptation, separation from any criminal penalties that may attach to it. There are constant temptations to put private interests ahead of public ones—the language of corruption provides a social pressure on the other side of that equation.

The point is that what makes us so exceptional in America is that constantly, and from the very beginning, as Hannah Arendt writes but also as Zephyr Teachout notes, we are consumed by the effort to prevent democracy from being corrupted. The fact that over and over again, when it looks bleak, we come back to talk about corruption is a sign of hope. And that hope is what I want to explore over the next two days.

— Roger Berkowitz

This post is cross-published on The American Interest website.

(Featured Image: “Progress of America,” 1875, by Domenico Tojetti; Source: Mystic Politics)

Posted on 18 October 2014 | 11:30 am

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